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D.C. Law Students in Court, the largest provider of legal aid to low-income Washington, D.C., residents battling eviction and other housing problems, is facing a serious budget deficit that could force it to close its doors and leave nearly 7,000 people the program assists each year with nowhere to turn. After losing funding from the city and the Legal Services Corp. in the mid-1990s, the clinic has run in the red, using long-standing reserves to make up the difference. Over the past few years, declining participation and revenue from some of the city’s five participating law schools have also affected the bottom line. Now, for the first time, existing reserves cover only half of the $180,000 hole in the clinic’s approximately $650,000 budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The reserve will dry up next year, forcing leaders to contemplate having to close or dramatically scale back operations. While fighting for the future of the organization, Law Students in Court Executive Director Ann Marie Hay believes the real impact of a shutdown will be in D.C. Superior Court and in struggling neighborhoods around the city. “I think it would make the courts a harsher place for tenants,” she said. Judges, too, are concerned about their ability to properly administer justice without the aid of the clinic. “I think it would affect the comfort level we have with the justice we are giving when a person is unrepresented,” said D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon Sr., who presides over the court’s Civil Division. “It is very difficult to be able to provide assistance to pro se defendants when the students are on vacation. I think I can tell you firsthand that it would be very difficult if they were gone.” Founded as a joint venture of five D.C. law schools — Georgetown University Law Center, George Washington University Law School, American University’s Washington College of Law, Howard University School of Law, and Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law — the D.C. Bar, and the judges of the D.C. Superior Court, the program was designed not only to address the vast numbers of unrepresented tenants in landlord-tenant court but also to give law students a chance to see the inside of a courtroom before graduation. The organization has grown over the years to its current size of seven attorneys. But the clinic began to hit hard times five years ago, when the District of Columbia — facing its own budget woes — ceased its appropriation to the clinic and Congress began strict regulation of the funds dispersed by the Legal Services Corp. These moves erased between $100,000 and $150,000 of the agency’s funding, said Chairman of the Board Patrick O’Donnell. “That started our problems,” he said. “Before that, we’d been financially stable.” The past couple of years have also seen a decreased contribution from the law schools. For each student who attends the Law Students in Court clinical program, the school must pay a fee. The total contribution from the schools can fulfill half the program’s budget. Yet student participation has declined recently as law schools have developed their own clinics and students have preferred to take on paying jobs. Law school programs are now available in such areas as tax and international human rights, which students see as more glamorous and often more relevant to their professional aspirations, said Richard Wilson, director of clinical programs at American’s law school. “At our peak, we were about 80 students,” said O’Donnell. “We’re down to about 50 to 55.” In the 1999-2000 academic year, 48 students took part in the landlord-tenant clinic, with 19 participating in the smaller criminal defense side of the clinic. For the current academic year, a total of 54 students signed up. “Our numbers dropped at Georgetown, George Washington, and American,” O’Donnell added. “The hot economy and the availability of high-paying jobs for students while they’re in school have cut into the numbers,” opined fellow Law Students in Court board member Casey Anderson. ON THE FRONT LINES At landlord-tenant hearings in Superior Court, bodies spill out into the hallways. Landlords and tenants alike wait hours — sometimes all day — for their turn to be heard. Those waiting at the periphery strain to hear their names called by the court clerk. Some miss hearing their names called at all. The sheer volume of cases is intimidating — more than 57,000 landlord-tenant cases were filed in 1999 alone, according to the court’s annual statistical report. From July 1999 to June 2000, Law Students in Court assisted more than 6,900 people, making more than 1,500 court appearances on behalf of clients and advising thousands of others. Reba Collins found out how tough the system can be four years ago. The kitchen ceiling in her Fort Dupont Park neighborhood apartment had fallen in again. Although her landlord had promised to fix the problem, she recalled, nothing had changed. A diabetic on a strict diet, Collins didn’t feel safe trying to use her stove, which was located right under the falling debris, and she often ordered take-out. She went into diabetic shock more than once in 1996 and 1997. When her landlord continued to ignore her repeated requests for repairs, she said that she did the only thing she knew to do — withheld part of her rent. Her landlord responded by dragging her into Superior Court for nonpayment of rent. She spent all day there, only to watch her case continued time and time again, she said. Feeling frustrated, Collins engaged the aid of D.C. Law Students in Court, which always has staff members present in the courtroom. The case soon settled in her favor. “We reached a settlement where she got an abatement of about 15 percent,” said Nathan Neal, one of the supervising attorneys at D.C. Law Students in Court. The abatement, due to the poor condition of the apartment, meant that Collins got approximately $2,000 knocked off the total amount of her past-due rent. Collins is sure she would have been unable to reach the same result on her own. “If you have someone to represent you, it’s different,” she said. The city’s other providers of legal services know that people like Collins may have a harder time resolving cases without Law Students in Court. Grappling with a budget already stretched to the limit, Joseph Zengerle III, the executive director of D.C.’s Legal Aid Society, worries about how his agency will handle the flood of cases that would spill over from the clinic. “If Law Students in Court were to downsize or to, worse yet, disappear, those cases would have to be absorbed,” said Zengerle. “There are only three or four other legal service providers who work on these types of issues.” “What that would mean is that we’d have to hire another lawyer or a lawyer and a half,” he continued. “That’s a big budget item.” Landlord-tenant attorney Eric Rome of D.C.’s Eisen & Rome added that a lack of pro bono counsel for tenants will hurt the court. “Far fewer cases are going to be resolved on a voluntary basis,” he said. “If you opt for a trial, it clogs the system.” Tenants left with little or no representation in court could be “buttonholed into signing agreements,” said Rome. In an aggressive attempt to avoid shutting down, the clinic has stepped up its fund-raising campaign, and D.C.’s Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld has pledged its help pro bono to regain city funding. “We do think that Law Students in Court is an important program because it aids indigent tenants,” said Akin Gump associate Elizabeth Hyman, “and it’s a good training ground for law students.” But even if these efforts patch up the $90,000 hole for this year, board members are all too aware that they must figure out a permanent fix for the $180,000 gap looming in budgets for the next few years. “We want to tell people,” said board member Anderson, “their investment is in the future of the program.”

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